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DeWayne's World - A quiet hero

DeWayne Bartels

On Feb. 20, Elwood Bradley lay on his bed in Peoria when he met death at 11:16 p.m. His family was beside him.

Elwood died peacefully, the cancer ravaging his body finally winning the battle he waged for months.

Facing death was nothing new to Elwood.

At 11:16 p.m. Feb. 20, 1945 — exactly 65 years earlier — Elwood lay on a bed inside a hospital ship stationed off Iwo Jima with those hovering over him wondering if the Marine, who had stormed the beach at Iwo Jima in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, would live.

Elwood was a hero, but a quiet one.

He did not speak of his wartime exploits often. I had known him for a couple of years, and he had never mentioned he was a decorated Marine.

I learned of Elwood’s heroics at his funeral. 

The minister presiding over Elwood’s service spoke often of his admiration and appreciation for Elwood’s service to his nation.

The minister told those gathered for  the funeral that Elwood had been a U.S. Marine, among the first to storm the beach at Iwo Jima.

It made me sad to realize I had been in the midst of greatness without realizing it. I had seen Elwood as a frail old man, not a hero.

I went looking for more about this quiet man who sacrificed so much to assure the freedoms I enjoy today.

Elwood Bradley was born Feb. 8, 1916, in Lilly to Roy and Ethel Hogan Bradley. But, he called East Peoria home as an adult, then Peoria Heights.

He married Lucille T. Schuster in Peoria on July 27, 1940. She preceded him in death.

Elwood worked as a machinist at Caterpillar Inc., retiring in 1978. The obituary gave the scant details of his life, but did not tell the whole story.

For example, his obituary did not mention Elwood joined the service at the age of 27, rather old for joining those ranks.

It also did not tell how Elwood became a Marine. Elwood’s nephew, Richard Mitchell, provided this insight.

“He wanted to enlist. He knew men were needed. He went to the Army. They told him he had a heart murmur. They rejected him. He went to the Navy. They rejected him,” Mitchell said.

“Finally, he tried the Marines. They said, ‘We don’t hear a heart murmur.’ The Marines took him.”

That decision changed the course of Elwood’s life.

With another rejection, Elwood likely would have returned to work in East Peoria for Caterpillar or in one of the Tazewell County coal mines where he had worked before.

Instead, Elwood embarked on a course hurtling him toward an island full of Japanese soldiers wanting to put him in their sights.

If Elwood got any sleep on Feb. 19, 1945, it likely came in fits on the ship on which he was travelling. He left San Diego headed toward Iwo Jima with thousands of other Marines.

C. Peter Chen, at iwojimaww2db.com, said the island was a barely noticeable chunk of rock in the Pacific — 4.5 miles long and, at its broadest point, 2.5 miles wide.

The Americans were winning battles in the Pacific Theater and moving ever closer to the Japanese mainland. But, Iwo Jima was a threat to American bombers. The Japanese had landing strips on the island from which they could launch Zeros to attack the American bombers.

Iwo Jima was also an early warning station for Japan, giving Tokyo two hours of warning before American bombers could reach their targets.

The American military needed and wanted those air strips on Iwo Jima. Operation Detachment against Iwo Jima was born.

The Americans rallied a formidable force. Elwood was among them.

Just before 2 a.m. Feb. 19, 1945, the Navy artillery began battering the island. After an hour, 110 allied bombers dropped more bombs. After the planes left, the Navy opened up again.

The Japanese were prepared.

On the island and underneath the rocks, the Japanese had 750 major defense installations to shelter guns, blockhouses and hospitals.

Within them, 21,000 Japanese soldiers waited for the American assault.

At 9:02 a.m., the order for the first wave of 30,000 marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine divisions headed toward the beach in landing craft.

Elwood was in the third wave of Marines to hit the beach. He was a member of the 5th Marine Division.

Mitchell again paints a picture of what awaited.

“He told me he came ashore under intense shelling and machine gun fire. He did make it off the boat and to shore. Once on shore, he ran to the hillside,” Mitchell said.

“There were, from what he said, bodies all over the place.”

Elwood inched his way up the hillside alongside other Marines.

“He did admit to me he killed enemy soldiers, but didn’t want to get into detail,” Mitchell said. “He kept that inside.”

The objective of the Marines, Mitchell said, was to take out the machine gun and mortar nests the enemy had hidden on the top of the hillside.

Elwood made it to the top of the hillside, but not much farther.

“A mortar round went off and got him. A piece of shrapnel hit him,” Mitchell said, looking down.

The shrapnel hit Elwood in the back, below his left shoulder near his spine.

His fellow Marines, ducking machine gun fire and more mortars, got Elwood off the island and onto a hospital ship.

“He was paralyzed for I don’t know how many days,” Mitchell said. 

The doctors recommended to Elwood that he allow them to remove the shrapnel. However, they told him they could not guarantee he would survive the operation.

“They gave him three years to live at the most if he did not have it removed. He opted to leave it in,” Mitchell said. “He lived another 65 years. He took that shrapnel with him to his grave.” 

The island was eventually taken and helped lead America to victory in World War II.

Elwood came home, went to work at Caterpillar in East Peoria and built a life in Peoria Heights. The years passed and Elwood grew older. His pace got slower.

Eventually, the cancer brought him to a near halt.

On Feb. 20, Mitchell and I moved a grandfather clock that Elwood was fond of to a location where he could see it. Neither of us knew then he had only hours to live, but it seemed appropriate, somehow, that as his time grew short, we place something in front of him that marked time.

A few days after Elwood’s passing, I sat down with Mitchell to talk about his uncle.

Mitchell said Elwood’s pride in being a Marine never faded.

“He always walked proud, like a Marine,” Mitchell said. “He always had a skip in his step.”

Mitchell’s pride for his fallen uncle is still strong.

“Without people like Elwood doing what they did, we might all be speaking German or Japanese,” he said.

It is all about time — history and telling the stories of our heros. Elwood’s has now been told as best it can be. It was about time.